Show Your Colors

The best place to see fall foliage in Texas is the Guadalupe Mountains where the change of seasons appears in full splendor. Here are the secrets of the state’s undiscovered national park.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park in far West Texas has a terrible image problem. It is a harsh, forbidding place, squarely in the middle of nowhere, or more specifically, a hundred miles east of El Paso and almost two hundred miles due west of Midland. No river runs through it. Although it shares some of the characteristics of Big Bend National Park-Chihuahuan Desert in the lowlands and pockets of coniferous forest in semi-alpine high country-it lacks the allure and immensity of Texas’ other national park, which is almost ten times the size of the 86,416-acre Guadalupe park. It makes you wonder why anyone would want to bother with what seems to be, from a passing motorist’s perspective, a rather unremarkable arid wasteland.

Well, here’s what Guadalupe does have: Texas’ tallest peak, most dramatic landmark, most beautiful canyon, and best fall colors, in addition to trails that lead to hidden thickets, forests, and woodlands. Guadalupe Peak’s 8,749 feet above sea level may be fairly unimpressive by Western standards, but it is higher than any mountain eastward to the Atlantic, and it rises a full mile above the surrounding terrain. The blocklike El Capitan, directly south of Guadalupe Peak (and frequently mistaken for it), is Texas’ most famous natural landmark, having served as a sentinel for generations of travelers. McKittrick Canyon has the most spectacular display of fall colors in the state.

If Guadalupe Mountains National Park lacks the photogenic attributes-and the hype-of better-known parks, it offers a seclusion that is itself a drawing card for anyone whose memories of a trip to a national park include traffic jams, tour buses disgorging hordes of strangers bearing cameras, and long lines inside the gift shops. These things are not problems at Guadalupe Mountains park, because there are no roads inside the park, no gas stations, and no motels or restaurants, much less convenience stores or concessionaires. The spartan conditions keep the annual visitor count down around the 200,000 mark, consistently placing the Guadalupes on the bottom-ten list in national-park popularity.

The park encompasses the front wedge of an uplifted range formed by an underwater limestone reef a quarter of a billion years ago. Gently welling up out of the Lincoln National Forest across the state line in New Mexico, the mountains reach their greatest height in Texas before ending at El Capitan; six peaks that top eight thousand feet jut directly above the barren desert floor. Pine Springs, the park headquarters, is on the east side of the range, and the side road to McKittrick Canyon is another eight miles to the north.

What little greenery exists in the Guadalupes is relict forest-remnants of woodlands that thrived here during cooler, wetter times after the ocean receded. Microclimates survive in the cracks and seeps of deep, desiccated canyons. The forests appear wherever they can find partial refuge from a relentless sun, wind gusts that can exceed 120 miles per hour, and sudden, severe mood swings of the thermometer. The highest temperature recorded in March is 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The record low for the same month is -4 degrees. Away from these slowly disappearing forests, the Guadalupes are the southern equivalent of the Dakota Badlands.

The dearth of goods and services is intentional. Wallace Pratt, the late Humble Oil geologist who donated 5,632 acres of his McKittrick Canyon ranch to the U.S. government 26 years ago, expressed the desire to keep the fragile canyon as unspoiled as possible. That was consistent with sentiments voiced by Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, a trailblazing naturalist and ardent preservationist who extolled the virtues of hiking this rough country in his 1967 book, Farewell to Texas: A Vanishing Wilderness. When the park opened in 1972, the National Park Service had clearly respected Pratt’s and Douglas’ wishes. Guadalupe Mountains National Park has remained wilder and considerably less developed than Carlsbad Caverns National Park, forty miles up the road. McKittrick Canyon, for example, is open to visitors only during the day. The only paved thoroughfare is U.S. Highway 62-180, which skirts the southeast corner of the park on its way from El Paso to Carlsbad, New Mexico, passing Pine Springs and turnoffs to trailheads. A proposal to run a tram to the top of Guadalupe Peak has been included in plans for the park since the beginning, but park administrators have never supported the idea.

Sometimes, however, official policy can be taken to the extreme, as it was earlier this year [1993] when the Parks Service succeeded in shutting down the old Pine Springs store, less than a mile from headquarters, after years of threatening to do so. If only management could figure out how to eliminate those noisy eighteen-wheelers gearing their way up Guadalupe Pass and reroute those irksome jets overhead in the flight pattern to and from Los Angeles. And it would be nice to have at least one public shower in a park where hiking is the main activity.

There is, however, one seldom-traveled way to get into the mountains by car. It requires a 102-mile drive from Pine Springs through New Mexico, looping past Carlsbad Caverns, then cutting across the Lincoln National Forest before dead-ending at the Dog Canyon campground. At 6,400 feet above sea level, nearly 800 feet higher than Pine Springs, Dog Canyon is in the thick of the kind of big-tree mountain country that seems more typical of New Mexico than Texas—a logical impression, because the state line lies just outside the campground. Less than a mile from Dog Canyon on the Tejas Trail are numerous stands of big-tooth maples, which typically turn color a week or two before the maples in McKittrick Canyon.

More than eighty miles of hiking trails run through the Guadalupes, some of them so remote you are almost as likely to encounter deer, elk, and even mountain lions or black bears as another human. But others are so accessible and easy to traverse that even armchair adventurers like me who loathe the idea of lugging a sixty-pound backpack for the pleasure of camping overnight in the

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